IN this US election, the Democratic party is making contradictory assertions. On the one hand, the presidency is so powerful that Donald Trump cannot be allowed to win it again. On the other, it is so inconsequential that it doesn’t matter if a clapped-out old time-server such as Joe Biden occupies the White House.
‘Never Trumpers’ cleave to an even weirder view that the presidency can safely be conceded to a rival party that is considerably more extreme than the average US voter, whether Democrat or Republican. The Democratic party stands far to the left of their own conservative beliefs and will change the country in ways that will be difficult ever to undo.
Towards the end of an overlong presidency that exhausted everyone, including himself, François Mitterrand was still lucid enough to proclaim as an axiom that social rights, once acquired by the people, can never be taken back. The total immunity of our NHS from management according to principles of efficiency – which are normally established by markets – is one of the proofs of how right he was. The NHS is now so precious that it must be protected from use by lethally sick people who are not infected by The Virus.
If Democrats win the White House, it is certain that even if they don’t carry out Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes’s wildest policies, they will make changes to the social economy – health care, immigration and education come to mind – which will be irreversible. Worse, it is possible that they will alter the constitution in ways that will make it difficult if not impossible for Republicans ever to regain the power to moderate these changes even if they were minded to do so. You can’t change anything if you can’t get elected.
This is Never-Trumpism’s most glaring idiocy. Its higher-minded-than-thou adherents practise a brand of aesthetic politics whereas Democrats practise a politics of ruthlessly ramming through as much of their wishlist as they can while they have the chance and road testing afterwards. Obamacare is exhibit number one: a 1,200-page law that no one read in its entirety before it was passed and which didn’t fulfil its promise.
It is complained that Republicans do not have policies, and it is true that conservatives do not have a quiverful of academically endorsed programmes to wow the voters, although there have been significant exceptions such as Thatcher and Reagan. Conservatives advance in accordance with the principles of prudence, consciously never leaping in ignorance of how far the fall is. Their idea is to make things better and safer without too much risk.
Policies are the domain of the Left everywhere and the Democratic party is no exception. At the moment, they propose universal health care which would be extended to all immigrants who show up, free college, forgiveness of student debt, higher minimum wages and a great deal more which cements their image as the caring party that leaves no one behind who is not a Republican voter. And that’s before AOC’s Green New Deal which is intended to change absolutely everything – except the environment, funnily enough.
The fact that any one of these policies would bust the budget is a feature, not a bug. As New York mayor Bill de Blasio says, they know where to find the money.
How important to all this is the office of the presidency, which is only one of the three branches of American government?
A president is by any measure a powerful figurehead both to the country and the world. But that doesn’t mean he gets his own way or the co-operation of even the people who work for him. He is more a Gulliver hemmed by the little people than an absolute monarch. Donald Trump understood this and understood it even better when he realised that his own justice department, the FBI and the CIA were trying to set him up for failure at the behest of the Obama administration, which is a polite way of saying by Saint Barry himself.
The president has no control over politicised judges who play lawfare against him or the many government agencies that, even when they are headed by Republican political appointees, are always mainly staffed by Democratic career bureaucrats. The media is inherently hostile to Republicans. As a rule of thumb, a Democrat president is always more powerful than a Republican president even if his party controls both houses of Congress.
This is why Trump has played the game he has directly with the public and his international partners, a policy which yielded the peace deals between Israel and the Arab states in the Gulf which Trump hailed as a new dawn although Democrats were inventive in finding ways to criticise it.
Obama was protected by loyal buffers. Trump has been surrounded by forces dedicated to his destruction and has had to fight alone to get his way, at which he has been remarkably successful and cheerfully unabashed. He doesn’t whine. He punches back harder and is then hit with claims that he’s breaking the rules of presidential etiquette.
It’s the systemic thumb on the scales in favour of Democrat presidents which makes what sense there is of Biden’s candidacy; it looks bizarre from the outside but has surely been thought through with care. George W Bush’s derided occasional inarticulacy becomes a matter of no importance now that it is Biden who can sometimes barely finish a sentence, never mind do so coherently.
What is important is not so much Joe Biden having the prize and lasting the four-year course but the Democratic party possessing the power of the presidency with Kamala Harris as its chosen lady-in-waiting should he not do so. Power in Biden’s White House will be exercised by people some of whose names will never be familiar to the public. In a sense that’s true of every presidency which is too big for one man to fill but it will be more so in Biden’s ‘just sign here, Joe’ case.
The danger is that the Democratic party is itself divided between the outgoing centre-Left old guard, Pelosi et cie, and the surging young Turks represented by 30-year-old AOC and the Bernie Bros who are well to the Left of anything America has known before. Which of them will be pulling puppet Joe’s strings if he wins?